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North Korea Blinks When Confronted by the USS John McCain

5 years ago
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President Obama has stared down the North Koreans and won . . . or something.

Recall that two weeks ago, the White House sent the guided-missile destroyer USS John McCain to chase down a North Korean tramp steamer, the MV Kang Nam 1, thought to be carrying missile parts or maybe (hopefully) nuclear weapons material. The excuse to get nasty with the North Koreans: a U.N. Security Council resolution punishing them for their atomic and missile tests. The U.N. said it was OK to stop any North Korean ship under suspicion. Stop it and ask to board for an inspection, but without using force.

While the skipper of the heavily armed USS McCain (named for the grandfather of the current U.S. senator and second-place finisher in last year's presidential election) presumably tried to figure out what that meant, the Kang Nam rolled and heaved its way across the South China Sea toward Burma. The McCain came after it, just over the horizon.

Veiled threats came from Pyongyang's maximum leader, Kim Jong-il, on the dire fate that would befall anyone messing with his arms-export ship. It looked like this might be a dramatic high-seas clash of the kind that used to sell newspapers.

But, pfffft! The Nampo has suddenly turned around and headed home. Why?

It may be that Kim Jong-il blinked, figuring that a confrontation wasn't worth the trouble it would cause with his Chinese patrons.

It might be that the ship actually was carrying nuclear material and Kim didn't want to have it taken away.

Maybe the whole thing was a feint: Here, keep the Americans busy over here while we build some nuclear warheads over there.

That's what South Korea's defense minister thinks. Lee Sang-hee said Tuesday that North Korea's uranium enrichment program is "moving forward'' despite sanctions and threats from the international community and the little drama with the Kang Nam.

Intelligence sources say the North continues to prepare to test long-range missiles, and work on nuclear weapons continues.

Stay tuned. In that part of the world, there's always a surprise right around the corner.

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